The promise of a hyperloop in India: 150km in 25 minutes

Flying at the speed of sound.
Flying at the speed of sound.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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In a decade from now, going by promises, travelling the 150 kilometre distance between Mumbai and Pune may take just as long as getting food delivered to one’s doorstep today.

On Feb. 18, the Maharashtra government signed a framework agreement (pdf) with US-based Virgin Hyperloop One to set up a “hyperloop,” a new high-speed transport system, between the two western Indian cities. It could potentially reduce inter-city travel time to just 25 minutes from the current 55 minutes (by flight, apart from the time taken to get to and from the respective airports) or 2.5 hours (by road).

The hyperloop is an experimental mode of surface transport, refined by maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk. It involves a magnetically-propelled capsule that carries passengers or cargo through a low-pressure tube at over 1,000 kilometres per hour. Virgin Hyperloop One, backed by British investor and founder of the Virgin group, Richard Branson, was the first company to test the technology in May 2016.

The company’s India venture began in November 2016 when it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority to identify potential routes and study the technical viability of the hyperloop in India. The project, a public-private partnership, will begin with a six-month in-depth feasibility study, covering issues like the regulatory framework and funding models.

Virgin Hyperloop One in a statement said that it estimates “$55 billion (Rs350,000 crore) in socio-economic benefits (time savings, emissions and accident reduction, operational cost savings, etc.) over 30 years of operation.”

The development of the hyperloop will be carried out in two phases: Virgin Hyperloop One will first set up a demonstration track within three years. In the second phase, it will set up the entire route over seven years. The proposed route will pass through the upcoming Navi Mumbai International Airport and eventually undertake 150 million passenger-trips a year. The hyperloop will also transport lightweight cargo units between the Mumbai port and Pune.

Neither the company nor the Maharashtra government has revealed the quantum of investments the project will involve.

This isn’t the first such project announced in India. In September 2016, US-based research company Hyperloop Transportation Technology announced plans to connect Vijayawada and Amaravati in the southeastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh.

The hyperloop’s success in India depends a lot upon the regulatory framework. Historically, land acquisition, labour laws, and customs regulations have caused huge delays in infrastructure projects in the country. And then, there’s the question of cutting-edge technology that’s never been tested at scale.

Update: In reply to a Quartz email, Hyperloop one said, “The detailed costs of the project will be determined only when the feasibility study is completed. From there, the timeline could be ascertained…As with any new transport infrastructure, there will be regulatory challenges to overcome. We will work with India’s government agencies from the beginning to build a comprehensive approach to regulation–to ensure laws will be tailored to our technology and business, meet stringent safety standards, and that the public interest will be served.”